The Grammarphobia Blog

Whadda catastastroke!

Q: I was complaining about a cold recently when my wife said, ”You catastrophize things.” It’s true that I overreact to minor annoyances. Did she come up with a new word to describe this failing?

A: No, your wife can’t take credit for this one. The verb “catastrophize” has been around since at least the early 1960s, according to a March 2004 draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference comes from a book by the psychologist Albert Ellis, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (1962):

“More specifically, he should perceive his own tendency to catastrophize about inevitable unfortunate situations – to tell himself: ‘Oh, my Lord! How terrible this situation is; I positively cannot stand it!’”

The OED gives this definition: “To conjecture or perceive disastrous implications or scenarios; to regard a relatively innocuous situation as considerably worse than it actually is.”

(Although ”catastrophize” hasn’t yet made it into major American dictionaries, several people have proposed it to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary, which accepts suggestions for words that aren’t already in M-W’s Online Dictionary.)

In addition to “catastrophize,” the OED has citations for “catastrophizing” as a noun and an adjective. Ellis gets credit for coining the noun in his 1962 book. John Bradshaw, who writes and speaks on addiction and recovery, used the adjective first in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You (1988).

The OED has references for another noun, “catastrophizer,” dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest citation is in John Fiske’s Essays, Historical and Literary (1902):

“The difficulty with the catastrophizers was that while talking glibly about millions of years, they had not stopped to consider what it meant by a million years when it takes the shape of work accomplished.”

Or, as Jimmy Durante might have put it, “Whadda catastastroke!”

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